What does the Bible mean when it says that women will be “saved in childbearing”?
1 Timothy 2:15 is a peculiar verse. It reads “Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.”
Detailed below are several interpretations of this controversial passage.
Interpretation 1: Saved through the birth of Christ
The first interpretation is that women will be “saved in childbearing” through the birth of Christ, who came through a woman without the natural involvement of a man and lived a perfect life to be the sacrifice for our sins and bring us salvation from God’s wrath.
There are several problems with this interpretation. First and foremost, is that Christ’s sacrificial death saves both women and men. As such, why would Paul make a point of saying that women would be saved through the birth of the savior, when everyone who is saved is saved through the birth and death of that savior? Second, whatever these women are being saved from, it is clear that they will not be saved from it if they do not continue in certain good works. Does it make sense that Paul, the champion of salvation by faith through grace, would suggest that women would be saved from damnation through the birth of Christ if they “continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control”? Third, the book of 1 Timothy is not primarily concerned with issues of salvation. This is a letter written to encourage and enable a young pastor to correct errors and oppose false doctrine in his church. This particular passage has to do with correcting the ways that men and women were acting in the church. For this verse to address an issue of eternal salvation would be a major change of topic in a passage that otherwise does not address eternal salvation at all.
Based on these observations, it does not seem that the first interpretation is to be recommended.
Interpretation 2: Saved through, or sustained through, the process of childbirth
A second interpretation is that women will be sustained through the pain and danger of childbirth.
This runs into problems because of the conditions placed on it. Paul states that women will be saved though childbearing if they continue in “faith, love, and holiness, with self-control”. Does this mean that a Christian woman who does these works will have supernatural aid in dealing with the pain of childbirth, and that a woman of less virtue will not? This interpretation seems more plausible than the first, but it still doesn’t make much sense. Women give birth all over the world every day; do Christian women have statistically fewer complications or lower levels of pain in childbirth than Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist women? Furthermore, this interpretation, like the first, constitutes a significant departure from the train of thought of the passage. This is not a text on the curse, or on the nature of suffering, or about supernatural healing, but about proper and improper behavior in the church.
Again, due to the implications of this interpretation, and its departure from the general point of the passage, it is hard to recommend this interpretation.
Interpretation 3: Saved from obscurity or insignificance through childbirth and a godly life
A third interpretation is that Paul is promising that women will find their prominence in the church by means of childbearing and good works.
This interpretation is rooted in the general train of thought in the passage. As noted before, the book of 1 Timothy is a letter exhorting a young pastor to address error and false teaching in his church. From 1 Timothy 2:8-15 we can gather that in the Ephesian church, the men were acting in an angry and quarrelsome way, and that the women were being ostentatious, neglecting good works, and desiring hold positions of authority within the church. Paul condemns each of these things, commanding that men should pray and worship without anger and doubt or disputation, and that women should refrain from flaunting their wealth or beauty, be engaged in good works, and to learn in silence without attempting to hold authority over the men in the church.
What does this have to do with being “saved in childbearing”?
It seems consistent with the passage to assume that the women in the Ephesian church wanted prominence. They wanted to be noticed for their wealth and beautiful clothing, or hold positions of authority and power. Paul clearly forbids both of these routes to prominence. It makes sense then, that he would indicate how a Godly woman might attain prominence or recognition in Christ’s church, or, put another way, to be “saved” from obscurity and irrelevance.
If we take this interpretation, then the pattern for a woman to be prominent in the church is for her to: a. have children, and b. live a life that is characterized by “faith, love, and holiness, with self-control”. Unlike the first interpretation, the exhortation to childbearing is consistent with commands found other places in scripture (Genesis 1:28, 1 Timothy 5:14) and with the general pattern of scripture which calls children a blessing (Psalm 127:3-5, Proverbs 17:6, Psalm 112:1-10, Psalm 113:9, Psalm 128:1-6). Furthermore, the conditional statement here is also consistent with scripture and with sound reason. Put plainly, a woman who raises a family and sets an example of Godly character and behavior will be recognized (see Mary mother of Jesus, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, Sarah Edwards, or Susanna Wesley). On the other hand, a woman who bears children and sets an example of godless or self-indulgent behavior may be recognized, but not as someone who is to be honored (see Jezebel or Marie Antoinette).
An extension of this interpretation, which incorporates some of the merits of interpretation 1 as well, is that Eve (and her descendants) will be saved from the stigma of being deceived by the serpent by means of childbearing (both generally and through the birth of Christ), and by their godly living. This has some merit, as the previous verse does address the fall of man, noting that eve, specifically, was deceived; and also because the “She” in this verse could apply to eve (vs 13 & 14) or to the “woman” generally (vs 11 & 12).
This interpretation seems most to be recommended, both because it does not contradict principles laid out in other parts of scripture and because it is consistent with the passage and the book in which it is found.
All scripture is God given, and therefore cannot be dismissed or ignored. As such, how do we apply this passage?
If interpretation 1 is correct, then we should teach our daughters to be women of good character. We will, however, be put in an awkward place because we will have to explain how their salvation due to Christ’s saving sacrifice is not actually contingent on their good character, when a consistent application of our interpretation would indicate exactly that.
If interpretation 2 is correct, then we should teach our daughters that if they are women of Godly character that God will see them through the pain of childbirth. This may lead to less fear of the process of childbirth, but would also teach by implication that if they have a pregnancy with complications, it may be due to a moral failure on their part. If this is true, then of course it should be taught, but general experience seems to indicate that both the godly and the wicked suffer in childbirth, which casts some doubt on this interpretation.
If interpretation 3 is correct, then we should teach our daughters to defy the current culture which says that childbearing and children are an inconvenience, and instead to embrace their God-given design as mothers, and to see their role in the church as being found in raising their family, acting in a Godly manner, and doing good works (such as caring for the poor and sick).